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This US invasion fills a cultural vacuum in Balkans

Clinton visit to former communist state comes amid debate over role ofHollywood.

By Kelly HearnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 1999


Standing outside a Benetton clothing store in downtown Ljubljana, Slovenia, Katia glances at her giggling friends and sums up what seems a widespread teenage attitude about life in this tiny former republic of Yugoslavia. "Without American movies," she says, "it would be boring."

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Less than 400 miles away, America is seen principally as the leader of more than two months of just-suspended NATO airstrikes. And less than a decade after extracting itself from the crumbling federation of Yugoslavia, Slovenia has become an enclave of American popular culture.

For centuries the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled Slovenia. It joined Yugoslavia after World War I and seceded in 1991, a move that prompted violent secession movements by Croatia, Bosnia - and eventually Kosovo.

With one of the strongest economies in Eastern Europe, a solid human-rights record, and stable democratic institutions, Slovenia's a sure bet for European Union membership. But some here point to a related challenge: developing a modern Slovenian character in an increasingly globalized world awash in things American.

For their successes, Slovenes have won the attention of the West. President Clinton is due to visit Ljubljana, the capital, later this month. But despite a strong sense of nationhood, decades of central planning and repressive state control have left this nation of 2 million with a classic post-communist cultural vacuum.

"We have no real role models in Slovenian literature or theater because for years we were under the rule of someone else," says Janez Kne, an economist and former journalist for Slovenia's national radio.

Unlike Russia, which for a time embraced American popular culture but is now turning back to things Russian, Slovenia has an economy that can't support alternative media, the kind capable of expressing Slovenian character while sustaining the interests of young people. So, Mr. Kne says, Slovenes must turn to Hollywood.

In Ljubljana, a profusion of billboard-sized movie ads set such stars as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts against the fading Baroque architecture and communist-era office buildings.

American music - from Madonna to Tammy Wynette - blares from radios and in nightclubs. Where once young people used Serbian and Croatian slang, they now roll out English jargon. Even the national currency has a familiar ring to it: the tolar.

The Pamela Anderson 'ideal'

But some Slovenes have begun questioning what they see as too easy an acceptance of American values. Leaning over a table in a Ljubljana night spot, Zala Volcic, a young Slovenian social researcher with a degree from the University of Colorado, says, "Pamela Anderson should not be the ideal woman.... We want to develop Slovenian role models."

Ms. Volcic ticks off the findings of a media habits study she and colleague Karmen Erjavec of the University of Ljubljana conducted on 10,000 Slovenian elementary students.

She says the children questioned chose American programs as their Top 5 favorites: "Beverly Hills 90210" ranked first and "Melrose Place" took second.

They also watch 20 to 36 hours of television a week, and usually begin watching television at the age of 2 or 2-1/2.